Meta-Plotting

meta-plot-cropped

If you’re looking for a plot, there are lots of lists you can consult for ideas.  The lists contain various numbers of elements, from one to thirty-six (and possibly more), but most of them have it in common that they don’t make any value judgements.  They’re just lists.  If you decide you want to write—just as an example—a Polti number four, “vengeance taken for kin upon kin,” that’s your business.  What the compilers of the lists aimed for was completeness, with the underlying assumption that what made a plot good was how it was handled.

Then there’s Christopher Booker’s 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots:  Why We Tell Stories.

Mr. Booker maintains (through 700 pages) not that there are only seven plots; but that there are only seven good ones.  Any work with a plot falling outside of his list is, by definition, a bad work.  On the good list are Crocodile Dundee and Brewster’s Millions; on the bad side, The Cherry Orchard, everything by Proust, and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Also Rigoletto, no matter who sings the part of Gilda.

Um…pretty sure I heard different.

there’s no arguing with the fact that the meta-plot is the plot that sells

Mr. Booker has reasons for judging literary works as he does, and the reason isn’t because he’s a contrarian.  He is a contrarian, as a matter of fact.  Among other things, he passionately maintains that global warming is a sham; evolution is false; and neither asbestos nor tobacco causes cancer.  –And don’t even get him started on the British Family Court System, or Social Services.  But in the case of literature, Mr. Booker feels that the worth of a work depends entirely on how well it serves the specific purpose of providing Jungian-style therapy for the reader.  A work’s plot, Booker feels, should parallel the human journey from total dependence in infancy; through adolescent efforts to break away from family (life’s greatest trauma); to establishment in the world as a mature individual.  Life itself has a plot, the Meta-plot, and through repeated exposure to literature that mirrors this meta-plot, we come to terms with life.

First in the meta-plot story is the anticipation stage, in which the hero is called to an adventure (as the child wishes to be an adult).  Then comes the dream stage.  The hero has some success, and imagines that he is invincible (“I got an A on my math quiz!”).  This is followed by the frustration stage, when life slaps the hero around a little (we all remember that stage, right?), and he discovers that he’s not invincible after all.

Then things get really bad.  It’s the nightmare stage.  The plot’s peak.  Hope is lost, everyone hates you; everything sucks.  Then—and not a moment too soon for most of us—comes the resolution, where the hero overcomes the odds.  Life’s not so bad after all, and we learned plenty along the way.

That’s the meta-plot, the one, single, really good, wholly acceptable, therapeutic One Plot to Rule Them All (The Lord of the Rings is, predictably, on Booker’s approved list).  The Seven Basic Plots of Booker’s title are encompassed by the meta-plot—subsets of the meta-plot, so to speak—and have names like Overcoming the Monster (Beowulf; Shrek); The Quest (The Pilgrim’s Progress; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle); and Rebirth (Peer Gynt; Machine Gun Preacher).

As a matter of fact, I like Kafka, and Virginia Woolf, and D.H. Lawrence—all Booker bads.  I like them a lot and I think they’re not only good, but great.   I personally don’t believe that people need all the books they read to conform to the meta-plot to provide them with continual therapy.

But on the other hand, there’s no arguing with the fact that the meta-plot is the plot that sellsThe Hunger Games outsold Women in LovePeter Rabbit outsold The MetamorphosisHarry Potter outsold everything.

So for my next book, I’m sticking with THE META-PLOT.  Art aside, I could use the bucks.

Blurbed to Death

ruby-slippers

By now, probably everyone knows Rick Polito’s brilliant summary of The Wizard of Oz: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”  Did you laugh when you first read it?  If so, you’ve never had to compose a Kindle “short blurb,” for which one is limited to 400 characters.  The first reaction to Mr. Polito’s work for those of us who’ve written a short blurb is to say, “My God, only 143 characters!  Including spaces!  The man’s a genius.”

All the books I write are long; and some (like Ant-Lands) are very long indeed.  In fact, when I finish a book, the first thing I have to do is put it on a strict reducing diet, shedding incidents; characters; sometimes whole sub-plots; in order to make it fit into that pretty prom-dress I have picked out for it—a salable-length manuscript.  I love long.  Long is easy for me.

Fitting it into four hundred characters, on the other hand, is a total bitch.

It honestly took me more time to write my “short blurb” for Ant-Lands than my first chapter.  Every attempt I made to summarize the plot, was, like Polito’s summary of The Wizard of Oz, accurate in its essentials, but terribly, terribly misleading (not to mention longer than 400 characters).  My first effort made Ant-Lands sound like one long battle; and a second was a string of clichés about can’t we all just get along, please.  I don’t even want to talk about versions three, four or five.

Happily, I finally figured out the secret of short, and it is:  Forget the plot.

I know:  Heresy, right?

Much as I love plotting, I have to admit that every time I try to recount one, I end up sounding like a four-year-old retelling a Road Runner cartoon

Forget plot, and not just for 400-character blurbs.  Forget the plot any time anybody says, “What’s that book about?”  No good plot can be related in a few words, because a good plot is a complex thing.  It’s made up not only of that super, easily-stated plot idea you had in the first place, but also of all the twists and turns in it introduced by your characters, with their complex personalities and backstories (right?).  Much as I love plotting, I have to admit that every time I try to recount one, I end up sounding like a four-year-old retelling a Road Runner cartoon:  “So then the coyote paints this tunnel, see?  –Wait; I forgot to mention that he got this tunnel-paint from a company called Acme, which is kind of a running gag.  Anyway, so he paints this tunnel—or, a thing that looks like a tunnel, anyway, and…”

For short, stick to theme.  Theme can be done short—sometimes in one word:  Love; redemption; courage; forgiveness…  Heck, you can put a shovel-full of themes into a short blurb and still have two or three hundred characters left for other business.

Also, theme is flexible.  I intend to take advantage of this.

Currently on Smashwords, which requires that an author pick categories under which to list his book, Ant-Lands, with its blurb emphasizing its post-apocalyptic, redemptive aspects, appears as science fiction and fantasy.  If it doesn’t sell that way, I’m going to change the blurb.  I’m going to write, “An allegory of the reintegration of a shattered human psyche, in which the raw but unregulated potency of the Id (represented by the so-called ‘Ants’) is subdued and civilized by the Ego (the ‘Men’) and the Superego (the ‘Foresters’)”, and list it under Psychology.

Perfectly accurate—in its way—and only 232 characters!  I’m getting good at short.

My Favorite Rule: Write What You Know

type-1161949_640I grew up in an undistinguished, lower-middle-class family, and was “the quiet one” in school.  I learned to type, and put myself through college doing clerical work in furtherance of business aims that I cared not one rat’s ass about.  Within a month of graduating with a degree in classics that proved that I had acquired the necessary skills and knowledge to pursue a more advanced degree in classics, I landed my dream job, gestating an embryo.  The embryo project was successful; and after a mere nine-month probationary period I was advanced—somewhat unadvisedly, perhaps—to the rank of household Mother-in-Chief.  This is a position I still hold, although in a massive corporate reshuffle that began on the day my male counterpart and I dropped the former embryo off at college, reporting lines have been rearranged, and my title is now an empty one, I’m afraid.  I live in the suburbs, enjoy classical music, and am still married to my original husband.

I actually have a point in telling all this; and the point is that it’s boring.  I have a nice, normal, boring life.  So how is it that I make so bold as to write books about people who don’t?  Isn’t there a rule that says You Must Write What You Know?

Yes, there is.  It’s a very good rule.  And I am happy to report that it does not apply to plots.

loss is loss, and suffering is suffering, and fear is fear, whether among the Suburb People of Middle America or the Slime Beings of Delta Vega

It’s true that if you haven’t known loss, you can’t—or rather, shouldn’t—write a book with great loss as its focus.  I’ve seen it done, and it never rings true.  And you shouldn’t write about battle, or space-travel, or riding in a Roman taxi if you’ve never been afraid.  But loss is loss, and suffering is suffering, and fear is fear, whether among the Suburb People of Middle America or the Slime Beings of Delta Vega, so go ahead and write that novel you keep telling me you’re going to get around to one of these days and in the matter of plotting, don’t hold back.  Really.  Go crazy with it.  But if you want to write that your protagonist, young Slime B. Ing, is radicalized when his pet mutant is killed before his very eyes by the evil Cephalopod general, you’d better have lost a loved pet of your own if you want the scene to really work.

And speaking of plots, as I always am:  I recently read a very bad story, set in a future in which weapons—they seemed to involve lasers, although this wasn’t entirely clear—were sentient.  This fact was a little throw-away.  I think it could make a whole plot.  Several plots, in fact.  How were these weapons developed?  Were weapons somehow modified so that they achieved sentience?  Or were sentient beings turned into weapons?  Are many “objects” in this future world sentient?  What would it be like, living in a world of sentient objects?  What would it be like trying to kill somebody with a weapon that was apt to want to discuss the situation with you first?  In a future world, do the sentient “objects” revolt, subjugate the “Irrationals” (our race), and try running the world by logic for a change?  Does it work?

I could write this, if I only had time.  I’d be writing what I know.  All day long, my computer goes out of its way to remind me that it is much smarter than I am. At least, anything programmed by Microsoft thinks it is.